The nonfiction films of Robert Gardner embody profound and significant contradictions : they are at once beautiful and unsettling, instructive and mysterious, brutally true and mythically transcendent. In twenty-nine completed works, many surveying the daily life and rituals of societies from every inhabited continent, Gardner probes acutely at the delicate borders that have always defined documentary—the porous and slippery boundaries between objective facts and their subjective telling. In Gardner’s work, this dynamic is inextricably entwined with the relationships forged between the inhabitants of indigenous cultures and their Western visitors. He approaches the métier of ethnographic cinema through a poetic framework, bridging the fissures between science and art in anthropology, continuing and expanding the humanist tradition originated by Robert Flaherty.
Gardner’s stature and influence extends far beyond his own directorial projects : he has enhanced the greater culture for decades as a writer, educator and patron of other artists. One of his most longstanding legacies in this regard has been The Film Study Center, which he founded at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1957 after working on a graduate degree in anthropology, and for which he served as director until 1997. Dedicated to supporting artists who explore the world through audio-visual means, The Film Study Center has, through its annual fellowships, funded animator Jan Lenica, documentarians Rob Moss and Ross McElwee, filmmakers of the avant-garde like Sharon Lockhart and Amie Siegel, and many others. And Gardner has supported artists in other ways as well : funding awards for many years like the Basil Wright Prize for ethnographic filmmaking, and the Gardner Fellowship in Photography, to give only two examples.
By the late 1950s, influenced by the writings of Ruth Benedict, Gardner had shot footage of the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia, but had yet to finish any of his now best-known films. Nevertheless, Gardner’s essay “Anthropology and Film,” written only a few months into The Film Study Center’s existence, outlines a theory for the role of cinema in recording other cultures that could double as a description of Gardner’s own practice in later years. “Direct observation,” he writes, “is, perhaps, the most basic and indispensible method by which man is investigated, and yet its practice asks almost more of human vision than it is reasonable to expect.” Filmmaking, Gardner suggests, can improve and amplify the human capacity for cross-cultural insight. “The eye is the principal bridge in all such crossings and also the first opening through which reality must go to reach a human center and become perception, a bridge and opening with neither reliability nor consistency,” he writes, noting he hoped that at The Film Study Center, “the kind of sight which the cine camera provides could be meaningfully shared by making it possible for people to see each other through its eye.” 
Underlying Gardner’s proposal is a fundamental humanism : that we all share a stratum of experience comprehensible across even the greatest societal differences. “People are alike physiologically and neurologically,” he writes. “They are alike, as well, in facing an inevitable sequence of realities having to do with physical and emotional development. People are born, flourish, and die. They all, in some way, love, hate, give joy, and grieve. The very fact of a human potentiality for sharing each other’s feelings presupposes that some such basis of similarity underlies these feelings, despite the variety of cultural expression.”
These ideas appear fully developed in Gardner’s first major work, Dead Birds, (1963), which takes place among the Dani people of Western New Guinea, who at the time lived in minimal contact with the greater, technologically advanced world. Gardner’s voiceover narration in the film’s opening sequence introduces a Dani fable about the origins of death : long ago, humans unwittingly lost a wager between the snake and the bird determining whether we would live forever, like the skin-shedding snake, or each eventually die, like the bird. The symbols of the snake and the bird play out in numerous ways as Gardner introduces us to the Dani’s elaborate system of endless, ritualized warfare between groups. The eternal battles of the Dani, in turn, seem to speak of the universal problems of warfare and, more specifically, the global political situation of its time, which then seemed equally without point or end. “The allegorical import of Dead Birds must have been obvious to its viewers in 1963, when the Berlin Wall was still new,” critic Elliot Weinberger observes. “It is a feathered and fluttering re-enactment of the Cold War that was being prolonged and endured by the drab souls of East and West.”
Dead Birds introduces Gardner’s use of recurring visual motifs to structure his work in a musical fashion, serving as conceptual mooring-posts as we drift through unfamiliar territories, summing up a sense of the culture at hand into a set of potent yet often oblique images. This practice continues in Rivers of Sand (1974), which, like Dead Birds, doubles as a commentary that is both timeless and contemporary : influenced by the rise of feminism at the time, Gardner decided to make a film that would take on critique gender relationships by detailing a society—the agrarian Hamar of Ethiopia—in which men ruthlessly dominate women.
Dead Birds functions in the quasi-narrative Flahertian mode, introducing individual characters as guides through the society, whose ways are described through an overarching narration. Rivers of Sand minimizes the use of narration, only sometimes translates the Hamar’s dialog, and dispenses with any traditional narrative structure in favor of a more rhythmic, structural movement over time. The tendency away from language and story reaches its remarkable culmination in Forest of Bliss (1986), Gardner’s vision of the seemingly timeless funereal rites of India’s holy city of Benares, a film of pure images unburdened by narration or even any translation subtitles. Again, the power of the film rests in its ability to simultaneously convey intensely specific details and gesture towards the universal : in this case, the experience of death and mourning.
Gardner’s films have prompted both praise and provocation within the field of visual anthropology, but it is important to consider his work not only part of the documentary legacy of Flaherty, cinema vérité and Jean Rouch, but also that of the often radically subjective avant-garde. Nowhere has Gardner’s debt to the former tradition been more openly apparent than in a Boston television series he produced and hosted in the 1970s for almost a decade, The Screening Room, which featured episode-long conversations with major figures in experimental cinema, among them Stan Brakhage, Yvonne Rainer, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, John et Faith Hubley, Peter Hutton, Robert Breer, Jonas Mekas, John Whitney Sr. and almost a hundred others. The recent arrival of many of these episodes on DVD, thanks to Gardner’s efforts, has already proven an invaluable resource to the history of film art.
Gardner continues to support and inspire a new generation of artists : many his works are now available on DVD, and he has published a number of books, including The Impulse to Preserve (2008), which includes excepts from journals he wrote during the making of several of his films. In a recent interview, he sums up his philosophy of filmmaking, returning to ideas that have been propelled his work from the beginning. “We can never share exactly our experiences,” he says. “You can’t have my experience, I can’t have your experience. I may be able to experience you having an experience, but what good is that ? I can’t get inside your skull. And this is the dilemma of all filmmaking. You can’t get inside peoples’ skulls. So what do you do ? Well, you try to get inside your own skull, and see what it is that you have there that maybe will resonate in somebody else’s skull, as an experience.”